Sunday, August 11, 2013

Paul Yoon's Snow Hunters


photo by Peter Yoon
I first read Paul Yoon’s collection of stories “Once the Shore” (a title I envy) last year. I remember the color of the book and the feel of it in my hands. Published by Sarabande (I almost always love the collections they publish), the colors of the sea painted its cover and that was all. 

Then the stories. 

Night after night I sought them under the dim nightstand light, with my love asleep beside me. I didn't think that I would like them at first. And then I couldn't pinpoint why these spare and luminous stories followed me through the day like dreams. But it had to do with the poetic in fiction. 

And how to explain?

There is a part of me that has always wanted to hide in language but equal to this, there is a me that loves to expose itself. It is not exposure exactly, but a cutting through to the human truth of something, that gets at the poetic. I recall reading Julia Kristeva and finding that she believed that the poetic was simply (though really complexly) the way language made the world anew. And not only that, in true postmodern riff-raff, it made the world. I recall, once, thinking that I would watch my child (when I had one ten years later) ever so carefully as he evolved into language. As language took hold of her. (The body of the mother [need fulfilled] murdered and made into letters/ language, the body of the father). Then, I did love to write poetry about such things. Then, I did love the graduate seminars on semiotics and such that I believed would grant me access to some mysterious world of academia. 

It can’t be as simple as the poetic makes anew, re-engenders, recreates, can it? I’m not sure.
When I think about Paul Yoon's writing I immediately get a tangible sensation. I can feel the work. I can feel the sea, the ship that carries his Yohan in SnowHunters to a new life, the cool water of a river that took his friend, the smell of snow in his lost and war-torn country, or the dusty shaft of sunlight coming through the room where Yohan sews and the radio plays and the dear tailor for whom he apprentices sips tea as he works. I want to be there. In this simplicity. In the world anew. There are no distractions, no chaos of social media, trying to keep up with this and that, and so on. Life is stripped to its bare essentialness. This is what we are really doing here when and if we can stop distracting ourselves. But this is any era, not just our own, in which we are distracted from what is real, what is true and beloved. We mostly all know what is worth loving. But the poetic seems to conjure this for us. And if we have forgotten that the act of drinking tea is sacred, the poetic will remind us.

In his first and much anticipated novel, Paul Yoon is a poet of fiction. There is a clarity, a cleanness and a beauty to his spare prose. Here is the way the novel opens.
“That winter, during a rainfall, he arrived in Brazil. He came by sea. On the cargo ship he was their only passenger.”

His first line announces what the book will offer. It tells us how he will give us the story. It is not a simple story at all, but he will cut away everything but what we really need, and give us this gift of clarity. And so he does (He stated in an interview that he cut back much of the writing about the time Yohan spent in a POW camp because he wanted the reader to imagine it). Often his sentences are short. 
                     “It was now 1954. He stood on the sidewalk, holding the blue umbrella.”

Here and there we are startled by his words. 

                      “How clean were the eyes of the dead,” he writes and that is all. 

We, he knows, will imagine more and with a deeper intimacy of our own, and in a way this is how he shines as a writer. He gives the reader room to imagine the story.


In an interview at the back of the novel he says that he isn't good at writing dialogue and therefore he avoids it. The first of the three sections of the book contains no dialogue. Thus like many great writers, he has allowed his weakness to become what defines his voice, and what makes his work unique. And thus in this silence we find ourselves deeply embedded in the mind and voice of our narrator. 

Snow Hunters has been called a haunting story about the effects of war and the hope of starting anew. And I agree. Time diminishes only to reappear--Yohan is close and then far far away from his father, the war, from the former lives he has lived. And then finally, he seems to open himself to the future, to see a life renewed.